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Appearing in The Empire Builders are (from left): standing—Travis Horseman (Neighbor), Audrey Rush (Mug, the maid); seated—Jim Azelvandre (Father), Mary Beth Griffith (Zenobia), Mary-Aileen St. Cyr (Mother); on floor—Stefan Langer (the Schurz) (photo courtesy of MadLab/Shepherd Productions)

Appearing in The Empire Builders are (from left): standing—Travis Horseman (Neighbor), Audrey Rush (Mug, the maid); seated—Jim Azelvandre (Father), Mary Beth Griffith (Zenobia), Mary-Aileen St. Cyr (Mother); on floor—Stefan Langer (the Schmurz) (photo by Michelle Batt)

By Richard Ades

MadLab and Shepherd Productions’ staging of The Empire Builders serendipitously arrives on the heels of an event that raised similar issues: Namely, how much should one be willing to give up in the name of safety, and how does one distinguish between justifiable concern and rampant paranoia?

Well, actually, there were two such events, if you count the revelations of government spying on private phone and Internet usage. But I was speaking mainly of something more local: The Night of the Derecho.

On Wednesday (June 12), Central Ohio TV stations devoted the entire evening to endless reports of tornado warnings, tornado watches and, most frighteningly, of a straight-line storm approaching from the west. We learned that weather patterns over northern Indiana were conspiring to create a threat even more dangerous than the folks E. Gordon Gee referred to as “those damn Catholics” at Notre Dame.

Perhaps sensing that viewers were having trouble worrying about all this while the skies over Columbus remained calm and clear, weathercasters trotted out maps showing developing tornados up north and that treacherous storm system out west. And lightning! Lots and lots of lightning!

And the worst was yet to come, they warned, as the derecho was due to hit Columbus sometime after 1 a.m. The folks at Channel 6 went so far as to advise us to take refuge in our basements in case the fierce winds sent trees crashing into our homes.

I remained skeptical, but I couldn’t dismiss the warnings entirely, especially since a mature ash tree stood right outside my bedroom window. Though I didn’t hide in the basement, neither did I escape into dreamland. Instead, I lay awake and watchful until the storm arrived, right on time, left a few drops of rain and departed. The total damage: an overturned mat on the back porch. Except in parts of Hilliard and Canal Winchester, it seemed, the derecho was a nonevent.

It’s in the aftermath of this harrowing experience—and of the NSA/Verizon revelations—that The Empire Builders arrived at MadLab last week. It was pretty neat timing, considering that French playwright Boris Vian’s 1957 work is about a family that goes to great lengths to protect itself from a vague threat.

Each time they hear a mysterious and ominous noise, Father (Jim Azelvandre) and Mother (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr) drag their daughter (Mary Beth Griffith) and maid (Audrey Rush) upstairs one flight. And each time they move, they end up in a smaller apartment than the one they had before, though only daughter Zenobia seems to realize this. She points out, in vain, that they started out with six rooms and now have only two.

She also points out that it wasn’t until they’d moved the first time that their living space was shared by a silent beast known as the Schmurz (Stefan Langer). But again, the parents are oblivious. They refuse to even acknowledge the creature’s existence, though they periodically pause to attack it with their hands, feet, belt or whatever else is handy.

This is obviously an extremely odd work, and it only gets odder as it goes along—odder and harder to interpret. But many viewers will see that as a challenge.

Inspired by recent events, they may compare the Schmurz to the NSA, or maybe to the terrorist threats that spur it on. They may compare the family’s increasingly smaller apartments to our loss of privacy, or perhaps to our loss of regular TV programming on Wednesday night.

And what does the mysterious noise represent? Edward Snowden? Chris Bradley?

The play’s obscure theme is actually less of a problem than the fact that it’s about as repetitious as Wednesday’s weather reports. For example, it’s fun to watch Father and Mother beat the tar out of the Schmurz two or three times, but by the sixth or seventh time, the slapstick routine has grown stale.

It definitely helps that director Andy Batt has gathered a good cast, which includes Travis Horseman as the Neighbor and the estimable Azelvandre as the Father, who becomes the prime protagonist. But there’s only so much the actors can do to maintain interest in characters who don’t develop or behave in a rational manner.

Griffith has an advantage over the others, playing someone who actually appears to have a working brain, and she makes the most of it with an appealing performance. Weirdly, though, the only character who evolves in the course of the play is the Schmurz, who grows increasingly menacing. Langer does a commendable job of giving the specter a personality without saying a word.

Behind the scenes, Anthony Pellecchia’s lighting, Dave Wallingford’s sound design and Deb Dyer’s bizarre set combine to give the show an eerie personality.

The Empire Builders is a gutsy choice for Shepherd’s third annual production, being relatively unknown compared to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (2011) or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (2012). Having recently carped about another local troupe’s unadventurous programming, I can’t fault Shepherd for taking a risk.

But it’s also good to remember that when a vintage play has sunk into obscurity, there’s often a reason.

MadLab and Shepherd Productions will present The Empire Builders through June 22 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors, $10 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

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